Arriving to Belfast

I had to suspend my blogging over the past few days, as we were on the road in and around Belfast, and our accommodations did not have wireless internet access. My iPad does not plug into ethernet connections, so I had to go silent for a time.

On Tuesday evening Jonathan Harden joined the team in Dublin to provide an orientation to Northern Ireland and Belfast. Jonathan has taught on the applied theatre course since 2008, and this year he once again curated our experience in Northern Ireland. In his session Jonathan asked students to share what they felt they knew about Belfast and Northern Ireland and what questions they had. He shared some of his own thoughts, perceptions and experiences, but emphasized that this was only one story. I had asked Jonathan to focus the work in Belfast on the notion of being an insider or an outsider to a particular community and how that might affect the way an individual becomes familiar with a new place that s/he might be hired to work in. Even though Jonathan was born and raised in Belfast and spent much of his adult life there, his recent relocation to London has changed his own experiences of the place that he called home for many years.

We made the two-hour bus journey to Belfast on Wednesday morning, and Jonathan met us at Queen’s University. After a lunch break, we got back on the bus, and Jonathan conducted a tour of the city, pointing out various sites and locations, including the shipyards where the Titanic was built, and eventually taking us to the end of his street in West Belfast. This would have been a largely Catholic, republican neighborhood, meaning that the residents would have wanted independence from the United Kingdom. East Belfast would be largely, Protestant, unionists, people who were happy remaining under British rule. Throughout his tour Jonathan emphasized that these terms are only so useful in the contemporary discussion of Belfast, yet it was compelling to see the reminder of the divide in the various flags, banners, and murals on display in each of these neighborhoods. Jonathan also took us to a peace wall that had been erected to cut down on violence at the height of the Troubles. Throughout our tour I was reminded of the moments in my childhood when Peter Jennings of ABC News would report on IRA bombings in London and the hunger striking of Bobby Sands. Re-visiting this history just reminded me how important the visit to Belfast is for this course, as it allows us to gain a deeper understand of the entire Island of Ireland. The tour concluded with a visit to Ulster Museum and an exhibition on The Troubles that was informative and seemingly quite fair in its depictions of both sides of the conflict.

Following the tour and a quick check in to our rooms at Queen’s, students and staff had a chance to experience the excellent restaurants of Belfast, as Jonathan had booked a number of fantastic options. After dinner, Jonathan conducted an unofficial tour of some of Belfast’s best pubs, and the walking from place to place immediately allowed us to gain a better understanding of being “on the ground” in this compelling city. Pubs included the The Crown Liquor Salon (1826), Kelly’s Cellars (1720), and The Duke of York (1710).

See images below from our first day in Belfast, and click here to see a video of our stop at the peace wall separating East and West Belfast.